As the joke goes, “The problem with quotes from the Internet is it is hard to verify their authenticity — Abraham Lincoln.” That adage holds true for presidential correspondence, too. On Tuesday, media outlets reported that a letter written by Barack Obama to a recipient only identified as “Lynne” had surfaced on Goodwill’s auction site. Bidders hiked the price up as high as $5,000 at one point— about half of what the letter would be worth if it were the real McCoy. Unfortunately, it seems none of these zealous bidders noticed one key word in the listing title: “print.” And such a print is worth maybe a few bucks.
“I’m sure they think they’re buying an original,” says Gary Zimet, curator at Momentsintime.com, a dealer of rare letters and autographs. “As a print, it’s worth $5.”
The original handwritten note was on White House stationery, was a full page long and discusses Obama’s healthcare law (not yet passed in the undated missive), as well as the president’s frustration with the filibuster process and the way it was “abused” by Senate Republicans.
That original — wherever it is — is worth about $10,000, Zimet says, because of its length and the fact that it’s on White House letterhead rather than a postcard-length correspondence card. The topic is historically significant as well.
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“It’s a very interesting letter,” Zimet says. “He’s talking about the filibuster process … and it’s highly unusual for a sitting president to talk politics in such depth to a layman.”
For “Lynne,” as well as anyone else who owns or inherits a handwritten presidential letter, Zimet gives the advice: hang onto it. “Almost 30 years ago I sold a Nixon handwritten letter to parents of two students killed at Kent State,” Zimet says. “Back then, they sold for 25 grand each. Today, they’re worth triple that, easily.”
On Tuesday morning, Goodwill added a notice to its auction page clarifying that the document is just a copy. But what about the unnamed bidder who committed to forking over $5,000 for a nearly worthless item? They may be in luck. When we called asking about the print and the absurdly high bids, a Goodwill spokesman says it’s likely that the entire auction would be scrapped. As of Tuesday afternoon, the price for the print hovered just above $1,500, indicated that some bids might have been withdrawn.
The top bidders are lucky they’re dealing with Goodwill. Some auction sites, not to mention private sellers, aren’t likely to be as generous to misinformed buyers. What’s more, while the misunderstanding about the “Lynne” letter appears to be an honest mistake, since Goodwill specified that it was a print from the outset, there are plenty of unscrupulous people misrepresenting reproductions as the real thing.
The obvious takeaway: If you’re in the market for a potentially valuable collectible, it’s important to do your homework so you don’t wind up inadvertently paying 1,000 times what an item is worth.